Old 97’s: Love The Holidays

Old 97’s
Love The Holidays
(ATO)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If 2018’s spate of Americana-based holiday albums featuring predominantly original material from Rodney Crowell, JD McPherson, the Mavericks and now the Old 97’s has taught us anything, it’s that the days of warbling those tired old standards are behind us. While one or two might appear, the vast majority of these Christmas albums reflect a far more intriguing musical and lyrical approach, hopefully leading the way for some of these new songs to be future classics.

The veteran Texas-based quartet throws its collective Santa hat in the ring with a jaunty, generally rollicking set. It’s immediately recognizable as their by now trademarked twangy, reverbed Americana, although wrapped around lively ditties about all things December and gifts. As the title implies, this forgoes some of the darker impulses we’ve heard about dysfunctional families, crappy presents and financial burdens, preferring to skew towards the more tender side of the season.

Things get off to a particularly potent start with the opening title track featuring a blaring horn section, drummer Phil Peeples’ locomotive percussion and singer-songwriter Rhett Miller’s always convincing vocals. That vibe carries through the majority of these 14 tracks, in particular “Up On The Housetop” (lots of “ho-ho-hos” here) and especially the punky, almost Ramones-inspired “Gotta Love Being A Kid” (even with the simplistic lyrics “I’m so happy I can be, here with my whole family”). Miller’s fresh-faced voice is perfect for a children’s selection about Rudolph meeting his soul-mate “Rudolphina” (“Rudolph was Blue”) complete with jazzy brass and Ken Bethea’s guitar cranking out power chords.

The mood turns introspective on the acoustic-based “Here it is Christmastime” (“we all want someone who will hug us and kiss us/ All I want is you for Christmas”) which comes swaddled in strings. The folksy “Snow Angels” also taps into the inclusive, optimistic holiday spirit (“Every one of us/ is a beam of light”) but would also make a terrific addition to a non-Christmas album.

A handful of rocked-up covers such as “Auld Lang Syne” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” corral these standards into the Old 97s’ careening, energized mindset, and even the cloying “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” gets a cool surfy makeover thanks to Bethea’s spaghetti western guitar solo. Perhaps they could have left the lazy supper club styled closing “Blue Christmas” on the cutting room floor, but this remains an upbeat — musically and philosophically — holiday album that’s spirited in all the best ways.